Nelson McCausland: Every new Irish language centre is a reminder of the inequality at the heart of our cultural tapestry
Nationalists say their heritage isn't respected, but £24m buys a heck of a lot of respect, says Nelson McCausland
In the centre of Armagh, building work is nearing completion on a new Irish cultural centre. When completed, it will be the latest in a network of Irish language centres, which is being developed across Northern Ireland, with support from An Ciste Infheistiochta Gaeilge.
Construction work on the £2m capital project started in September 2018, with a target completion date of July 2019. It follows on from the opening in March of a new state-of-the-art building for Raidio Failte, the Irish language radio station in Belfast.
The building is at the point where the Falls Road crosses the Westlink and it had a grand opening with the endorsement of the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, a halting contribution in Irish from Gerry Adams and a key role for Fergus O'Hare, a former People's Democracy councillor.
These and many other major capital developments have been facilitated by An Ciste Infheistiochta Gaelige, an £8m capital development trust fund, which was set up in 2010 at the behest of Sinn Fein to manage £8m provided by the last Labour government.
That has enabled the capital projects to draw in more than twice that amount from other sources of public money and so fund a series of Irish language development projects worth at least £24m.
The Irish language is at the heart of the current political impasse in Northern Ireland, because Sinn Fein put it there and Sinn Fein keep it there with their demand for an Irish Language Act.
In the world of Sinn Fein, education, healthcare, employment and other important issues are all subservient to their cultural strategy. With Sinn Fein, you can be sure it's party before people.
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Indeed, when Sinn Fein collapsed devolution in January 2017, they made much of a controversy about a Gaeltacht bursary scheme, which was worth £55,000. It was a figure that was repeated by cultural and political activists time after time, even though the money was reinstated and it was said that the initial decision showed "disrespect" for Irish.
However, I can't recall ever hearing either Irish cultural or political activists shouting from the rooftops about being the beneficiaries of £24m of public money.
Of course, that would run counter to the necessary republican narrative of grievance and "blaming the Brits".
Indeed, it would totally destroy their argument that the Irish language is not properly recognised and respected; £24m constitutes an awful lot of respect.
However, £24m is just a small part of the current public investment in the Irish language. All of these centres employ Irish-speaking staff and the initial capital funding is followed by annual revenue funding from a variety of public-sector funders. This is the gift that keeps on giving.
On top of that, the Belfast Agreement produced a statutory duty to "encourage and facilitate" Irish-medium education and also made commitments for Irish language television broadcasting.
When they were negotiating the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Fein understood very well that education and broadcasting are central to the success of any cultural movement and they made sure that Irish was accommodated, while other cultural traditions were ignored.
So, later this summer, the doors will open on the new Aonach Mhaca centre and it will join a network that includes Culturlann in west Belfast, Culturlann Ui Chanain in Londonderry, Cumann Culturtha Mhic Reachtain in north Belfast, Glor na Mona in west Belfast, Ionad Teaghlaigh Ghleann in Crumlin and many others. The list is growing and so, too, is the draw down from the public purse. Unionists can learn much from this and, certainly, in the current political negotiations at Stormont unionist negotiators can settle for nothing less than genuine equality and an end to the preferential treatment for Gaelic culture.
If we are to build a shared and better future in Northern Ireland, it has to be based on equality and every new Irish cultural centre that opens is a reminder to us that there has been a lack of cultural equality for far too long.
We have a rich cultural tapestry in Ulster and all of our cultural traditions should be treated equitably.